DUBLIN (AP) — An estimated 500,000 people crowded Saturday into central Dublin to view the St. Patrick's Day parade, a focal point for Irish celebrations worldwide and the start of the tourist season in debt-battered Ireland.
Bands from Britain, the United States and Russia joined thousands of Irish volunteers on Saturday's two-hour procession down Dublin's major boulevard, O'Connell Street, across the River Liffey, past Trinity College and concluding outside St. Patrick's Cathedral.
In his St. Patrick's Day message, Catholic Cardinal Sean Brady offered prayers to the estimated 50,000 citizens who have emigrated in the past year to escape Ireland's weak economy.
Unemployment stands at 14.4 percent despite the resumption of emigration at levels last seen in the 1980s. Ireland has been forced to raise taxes and slash spending for four straight years and since 2011 has been dependent on foreign loans to pay its government bills.
Seventeen government ministers have left Ireland this week to lobby 15 countries for increased investment and tourism. Prime Minister Enda Kenny is grand marshal of Saturday's parade in Chicago.
"I am keenly aware of the huge numbers who have emigrated from Ireland in recent times, especially those who felt they had no choice," said Brady, spiritual leader of 4 million Catholics in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
"May the memory of St. Patrick, who was himself carried off from his homeland at the age of 16, sustain all those who have left our shores for other lands," Brady said, referring to the saint's legendary background as a slave imported from Britain. "May the example of Patrick's faith in God, who comforted and protected him, protect and comfort them also."
The Catholic Church in Ireland also launched an online information pack for emigrants.
Brady was presiding Saturday over a special service honoring both St. Patrick and the Vatican's new diplomat to Ireland, New York-born Archbishop Charles Brown. At a service in Armagh, Ireland's ecclesiastical capital located in Northern Ireland, the two men planned to bless sprigs of shamrock for the congregation and then take part in Armagh's own parade.
Saturday's Dublin parade is just one of more than 50 across Ireland, many of them rowdy village affairs. The capital is also running a four-day St. Patrick's Festival through Monday that features live performances and amusement park rides in several parts of the city center, although the fireworks show has been canceled, another casualty of austerity.
The city's two most popular tourist attractions, the Guinness brewery and Dublin Zoo, both offered nods to the day's mix of patriotism and partying. Zoo animals were being fed special mixes of oranges and vegetables, mimicking the green and orange of the Irish flag, while Guinness was offering free admission to any visitors named Patrick.